Hiram O. Hutto wrote a tract (currently displayed on the La Vista Church of Christ website here) where he laid out a verse-by-verse commentary on I Corinthians 11:1-16. In this tract, Hutto states his opinion that all women are directly commanded to wear a head covering while praying. There are a number of congregations in the church that hold to this belief. They teach that all women should wear a covering on their head as a sign of their submissiveness while praying. Upon a careful study however, I don’t believe this is the case.
Hiram O. Hutto Refuted
On the surface, it would seem that Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is commanding a veil to be
worn by women while praying or prophesying. Certainly, he did command the women at Corinth at this time. And I agree with Hutto's reasoning that the covering discussed is an artificial one (specifically, a veil) and not long hair as some incorrectly teach (this can be determined by replacing the word “uncovered” with “short hair” and ”covered” with “long hair” in verse 6, in which case the sentence would fail to make logical sense). Which leaves us with two possibilities: either Paul was binding this veil on the women of
Corinth (and possibly other congregations of the day) but not on all women for all time, or Paul was binding it on all women for all time.
Hiram O. Hutto’s tract takes the second position, and his reasoning is based on the fact that the language Paul uses borrows from permanent themes, ergo the subject of his message must also be permanent in nature. But another explanation for the permanent language used, would be because the underlying subject being taught is that of the roles of men and women and the attitudes that each should
have towards their roles (consider that Paul begins in 1 Corinthians 11:3 by addressing the position of husbands and wives). These roles are of a permanent nature, which would explain why the language used employs permanent themes; it would be very difficult to discuss such roles and their implications without mentioning themes of a permanent nature. So I find this is a very weak argument.
I think the historical context is very important to this study. Unfortunately, there is debate among scholars if the wearing of veils was a custom of the day or not. Some historians claim that the wearing of veils by women was not a custom that originated from Christianity, like the Lord's Supper, but instead pre-dated it. This would strongly suggests that Paul was merely regulating a custom that was already present, not creating a new one. Such regulations were given in other places (holy kissing for example) where some regulation was called for to ensure a custom of the day did not become a stumbling block. I can't find any example in the New Testament where a custom of the day was bound on Christians (few today bind holly kissing or foot washing as commands), which would indicate that this passage is not a binding command for all women of all time. Instead, it would only be binding where applicable. That is, any time when the circumstances are the same as they were when this message was taught (those circumstances being that veils have an obvious symbolic meaning). If a certain article of clothing is culturally seen as a sign of submission for women to wear in public, and the removal of that article of clothing in public culturally seen as a sign of religious rebellion, or as a stepping stone to usurping authority from men, then it would be better to abide by that tradition than shock others by refusing it.
Other historians claim the opposite however, that the wearing of veils was not a custom of the day, that it originated instead with Christianity. If that is true, then Paul’s command to the church at Corinth would still be applicable today. Which again brings us back to the question, what was Paul’s intent? To create a lasting Christian tradition, or regulate a pre-existing one?
I am not a historian and claim no expertise in the area, but it seems to me that it would be a very difficult thing to prove definitively the customs of a certain city on a certain date, and as far as I can tell, no historian has offered concrete proof on this point. But Paul addressing this subject makes much more sense in the light of it being a regulation of a pre-existing custom. If such was the case, it would cause no conflict with the rest of scripture. Otherwise, if women of all circumstances are commanded to wear veils
as an outward sign of their Christian character as the proponents for this interpretation suggest, then I find that the passage would not harmonize with other passages of scripture, such as 1 Peter 3:3-5
Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands,
1 Peter 3:3-5 shows that our faith and submission should not be external displays, but internal characteristics. Not displayed in the wearing of a certain form of clothing, but visible to God in our hearts. This is in stark contrast to the notion that a woman should by nature wear a certain article of clothing in order to display her submissiveness. If there are two possible interpretations of a passage, and one would cause a contradiction with other parts of God's word, then the only possible interpretation would
be the one that causes no contradictions. (see also Matthew 6:5-6 and 1 Samuel 16:7)
Context of Passage
As such, I believe this to be the context of in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16: Paul had become aware that some women had broken a common tradition by throwing off their veils to pray and prophesy. No doubt, in public and before men, as he would address that soon after. Either there was a feminist faction who believed they were equal to men in all things and displayed their belief by uncovering their heads, or there was just general confusion in this area. Paul's purpose for addressing the issue of head coverings could have been for either (or more likely both) of the following reasons: Paul was concerned about the women usurping authority from men during worship, and choose to first address the attitudes of the women's hearts (that they should embrace their position even in small matters) before later addressing the larger matter of silence during the worship in 1 Corinthians 14:34. Or, Paul was worried that by breaking this understood custom of the day, the women could possibly bring reproach to the church by appearing un-submissive, and thus cause some to stumble.
In either case, this regulation of custom would cease to be applicable when the custom ceased to exist. Wearing veils is no longer an understood symbol of submission, so it wouldn't cause one to stumble to see a woman not wearing one today. It also would no longer be considered a step towards usurping authority from a man during worship, as it was then. The lesson is still very applicable of course, of accepting roles given by God, and not wearing anything that would bring reproach on the Church. But the specific tradition of wearing a veil is not.
I will say this as well though, if one believes that this passage commands the covering of a woman's head today, then it should be pointed out that a hat would not be sufficient. The covering would have to a veil; as would be recognizable to the members of Corinth. Just as one can't substitute bread for a hamburger during the Lord's Supper, one wouldn't be able to substitute a veil for any sort of head covering that is not a veil.